How to Work with and Lead Baby Boomers
Generally identified as being born between the years of 1945 and 1964, Baby Boomers are idealistic and have a tendency toward personal and social expression. The first generation to earn and possess more than their parents, Baby Boomers are typically ambitious, materialistic, and prone to being workaholics.
Questioning authority — a tenet for masses of young people in the 1960s and 1970s — is still very much a part of the Boomer approach to life and to work. Boomers are far more apt to challenge leadership than those who came before them, and also to embrace change. Boomers also remember when getting email was a good thing and not overwhelming.
Unlike their predecessors, Baby Boomers have largely opted against retiring at age 65. Why? For one thing, they like their jobs. Sure, if they’d worked in a coal mine or an assembly line for the last 30 years, they may feel differently. But many Baby Boomers work in knowledge-based positions, which are often quite engaging. Besides, with the demise of traditional pension plans — plus the fact that people are, on average, living longer — many Boomers have found that retirement at 65 is not financially feasible.
How to attract and hire Boomers
Boomers are ambitious — always have been, always will be. That said, an emerging trend is Boomers’ increasing interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR). Having successfully climbed the corporate ladder and accumulated the things their parents couldn’t afford, Baby Boomers seem to have experienced a resurgence of concern about social and environmental issues. This reawakening is due in part to the importance of CSR among Millennial workers. Indeed, working alongside this younger generation seems to have inspired Boomers to levels of activism they may associate with their youth.
Smart organizations include CSR activities as a hiring hook to lure Baby Boomers. Many older workers who view themselves as being “on the back nine” of their careers are more inclined than ever to bypass the big paycheck (and related pressure) to take on a job with a more altruistic theme. Other recruitment hooks for this generation include job variety, travel, opportunities to learn new skills, and opportunities to teach and mentor younger workers.
How to train Boomers
Everyone knows the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But the thing about that saying is that it’s wrong. You can teach an old dog new tricks. You just have to know what training method to use!
When it comes to training Boomers, you’ll want to keep these points in mind:
- Include team activities. Yes, everyone says they hate team activities, role playing, and experiential exercises. But in course evaluations, team activities almost always get the highest marks. See, people say they don’t like these activities, but they dislike sitting in a chair for hours, being lectured to, and looking at PowerPoint slides even more. If done well, team activities can be incredibly effective ways to teach and engage Boomers (as well as other generations). In fact, based on research by the National Training Laboratories in Arlington, Virginia, hands-on training is effective with 75 percent of people, second only to teaching others.
- Let participants experience different team roles. Job rotation, even on a temporary basis, is a great way to reinforce learning with Baby Boomers. It will also build greater understanding of and appreciation for others’ jobs — the “walk a mile in her shoes” thing.
- Align training with the company’s strategic plan. Boomers are goal driven. The more a company can link learning with organizational goals, the better. If employee engagement is a strategic goal of the company, Boomers are far more likely to embrace engagement-training initiatives. Training “stickiness” is greatly enhanced when the engagement workshop is connected to the organizational goals. Decoupling from organizational goals turns the learning opportunity into a “flavor of the month.”
Allow time after training for participants to evaluate. The best evaluations to weigh the effectiveness of training occur 60 to 90 days after the learning event. Waiting two or three months provides you with feedback on whether the participants are applying the learning in their jobs.
How to engage Boomers
To engage Baby Boomers on your staff, consider the following:
- Foster a non-authoritarian work environment. Boomers don’t like being told what to do. An authoritarian culture will meet resistance at best, and disengagement at worst. At this stage of their careers, Boomers are set in their ways. They have — or believe they have — accomplished a lot. Not surprisingly, a democratic leadership style goes a long way toward engaging Boomers.
- Tap into their experience. Ask questions like the following:
- “So, what do you suggest?”
- “How have you done this in the past?”
- “What has worked best when you’ve tried to do this?”
- “How would you recommend we proceed?”
Asking these and related questions will engage Boomers. It shows respect for their years in the trenches.
- Offer fresh assignments and other development opportunities. After years of climbing the corporate ladder, Boomers may be interested in lateral or even lower-level positions — if the positions will allow them to do new jobs or learn new skills. Shifting assignments will also boost innovation, because it invites new and different perspectives.
- Be aware of the challenges they face. Many Boomers wrestle with various personal challenges, such as paying college tuition for their children, subsidizing older children, and/or taking care of aging parents. In addition, some Boomers may be experiencing their own medical issues for the first time. Managers who are empathetic about all the things Boomers must juggle in their complex lives will be rewarded over time with above-and-beyond effort.
- Foster collaboration. The idealism that encouraged many of this generation to boycott the Vietnam War still kindles a desire to be part of “something bigger.” As such, Boomers tend to be highly engaged by working in partnership or as part of a team.
- Encourage expression. Boomers enjoy opportunities for expression. They’re among the ranks of workers who are truly engaged by meetings — especially when said meetings involve the exchange of ideas that intrigue them.
- Engage in CSR. To engage Boomers, encourage social activism, volunteerism, and CSR activities. Boomers are looking for ways to give back.
How to reward Boomers
Boomers respond well to the following types of rewards:
- Key assignments: Although people tend to associate the term reward with something monetary, that’s not always the case. Why not reward a Boomer with an international assignment, a transfer, or a key slot on the company’s five-year strategic planning committee? Leveraging and acknowledging Boomers’ experience is a benefit to both the company and the deserving Boomer!
- Acknowledgment of their accomplishments and their years of service: Public recognition, handwritten notes, saying “Job well done!”, and similar acknowledgments of an employee’s accomplishments and/or tenure are important engagement drivers for all generations, including Boomers.
- Promotional opportunities: Baby Boomers are the wealthiest generation ever, and they didn’t build that wealth by accident. They are, and remain, quite ambitious. Many organizations fail to understand that ambition is a competency that must be leveraged among employees who demonstrate it. In this world of work–life balance, organizations often struggle to find the employee who is willing to take on a key position that requires above-and-beyond effort. Thankfully, Boomers have a history of climbing the next rung of the ladder, and many continue to be motivated by that next great promotion.
CSR activities: Rewarding Boomers by enabling them to give back is a great engagement driver. For example, many Boomers would respond very positively to a paid week to build homes for the homeless with an organization such as Habitat for Humanity.